Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, by Gyan Prakash

Book of the week: A riveting tale of India’s imposition of exceptional powers has new resonance for Priyamvada Gopal

March 21, 2019
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inspects the troops in Kolkata, India, in 1976
Source: Getty

When Donald Trump recently declared an “Emergency” in order to bypass legislators and appropriate funds to build his controversial wall along the border with Mexico, commentators expressed justifiable fears that democratic process was being undermined. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2016 on a wave of aggressively xenophobic and populist rhetoric, however, might have come as less of a shock and perceived rupture if political commentators in Western liberal democracies had been paying attention to the 2014 election of another populist “strongman” – the Hindu nationalist hardliner, Narendra Modi – to the highest elected office in India, the world’s vaunted “largest democracy”.

This context of “a growing surge of popular mobilization laced with ressentiment and the move towards authoritarian cultures and governments” provides the hinterland for Gyan Prakash’s excellent study, which situates the use of “exceptional” powers within a longer history of state-formation and state-society relations. While Indian democracy is its main subject, Emergency Chronicles is a book with wider relevance in these challenging times, where the “intertwined shadows of populism and authoritarianism” are cast across the globe.

This major work returns to those infamous 21 months between 1975 and 1977 when then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, declared her notorious “Emergency”, during which civil liberties, constitutional rights and press freedoms were sharply abrogated by a process in which the law was used to suspend the law. While that period remains the only time in India’s post-independence history when an Emergency was formally in effect across the nation, Prakash’s compelling narrative demonstrates both convincingly and disturbingly that the familiar and emotive story of an “abrupt disavowal of the liberal democratic spirit” is a misleading, if comforting, one. Rather than sequestered as an exception, the Emergency must be seen as “not a momentary episode but a turning point in the history of Indian democracy”, with huge explanatory power for the present.

Prakash’s central argument is this: the founding figures behind India’s 1950 constitution were driven by “the will to institute a robust state capable of containing resistance, riots and violence”. In this project, they were assisted by the fact of having inherited, from colonial rule, “a strong, centralized state with exceptional powers” that had been used to repress anti-colonial opposition. Prakash’s claim is certainly supported by the sheer number of colonial-era laws still on the Indian Penal Code books. Section 377, criminalising homosexuality, was finally struck down recently, but the equally notorious Section 124A, the law against “sedition” or exciting “disaffection towards the government”, has been frequently deployed with alacrity. The Indian army continues to enjoy a significant amount of immunity from prosecution for misdeeds in regions such as Kashmir thanks to another exception, the notorious 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) that was first promulgated by the British in 1942 to repress the successful Quit India movement.

If, on the one hand, the nationalist elites simply consolidated their own powers through retaining those of the colonial state, a more complex rationale for investing the new nation-state with such heavy executive authority was manifest in the position of one of the Constitution’s guiding forces, the legendary Dalit leader, Dr B. R. Ambedkar. Prakash notes that Ambedkar did not place any faith in Indian society to change the “fundamental social norms” that underpinned vicious caste inequalities and deep-rooted discrimination. Political democracy could only be the “top-dressing” in such a context and any lasting change on the caste front would have to be enforced from above through “Directive principles” which, lacking juridical force, would have to be implemented by a strongly armed and “powerful pedagogic state” which would tutor India in constitutional morality. The “inherited burdens of history”, such as caste discrimination, would have to be undone through the authority of the state rather than awaiting popular political transformation. If Prakash’s argument is correct, there is no small tragic irony in this, for the weight of these state powers is often used precisely against those agitating for Dalit or Muslim rights.

Despite the somewhat bland title, this book offers a genuinely riveting account of the decades leading up to the imposition of the Emergency. Reading in places like a well-crafted thriller, Prakash’s account commences with the arrival, one September morning, of an unmarked black Ambassador car carrying policemen in plain clothes into “the Nehruvian oasis” of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where they proceeded to arrest a student in a case of mistaken identity. Three months before, on 25 June 1975 – in a midnight move which, along with independence in 1947, bookends Salman Rushdie’s fabled Midnight’s Children – the proverbial pre-dawn knocks on doors had resulted in the arrest of an astonishing 600 opposition leaders and activists. The most famous detainee was Jayaprakash Narain or “JP”, a veteran socialist who had gone from being a personal friend of Nehru’s to Indira’s most feared opponent.

From here, Prakash’s narrative takes us on a whistle-stop but very full account of key postcolonial events ranging from student rebellions and the legendary uprising in Naxalbari against landlordism to the infamous “licence raj” or industrial licence policy famous for political control and corruption; the making of the Maruti or “people’s car” that never was; the infamous Malthusian “sterilisation camps” (which cannot be sequestered from the wider global project of “population control”); to the “slum clearances” in Old Delhi which, under the direction of Indira’s younger son and principal henchman, Sanjay, reprised the colonial pattern in which the “native quarters” were “once again the subject of control and domination”. Attacking his grandfather’s “ideal of planning and self-reliance to free up the economy for consumer capitalism” (a process his brother, Rajiv, would carry forward), Sanjay emerges in Prakash’s story as a figure at once uniquely terrifying and coldly allegorical of state power, not least when he “turned his attention from the failing manufacture of the ‘people’s car’ to the joy of applying power on the bodies of the people and their lives”.

Since the ascendancy of a Hindu nationalist party to power in 2015, commentators have used a telling comparison, arguing for the existence of an “undeclared emergency” which persecutes civil rights activists and intellectuals, the most recent of which is the Dalit rights campaigner, Anand Teltumbde. Prakash’s incisive study gives us the backstory to the seemingly inexorable rise of the Hindu right, ironically, as part of the opposition to Mrs Gandhi. Several of its leading figures were arrested during the Emergency, enabling an ongoing representation of Hindu chauvinists as martyrs of that moment.

 Emergency Chronicles offers a forceful explanation why emergencies do not need to be formally “declared” in order to be part of the story of India’s experience of democracy and “Indian society’s troubled relationship with democratic values”. The burden of Prakash’s analysis may fall somewhat disproportionately on Ambedkar as driven by a “Tocquevillian belief in the reconstitution of society by politics”, for the question remains of how juridical and institutional equality – and the Indian Constitution was undoubtedly a progressive document in this respect, which still rankles with reactionary forces – can be ensured in a context of deep social stratification without some degree of state enforcement. Nonetheless, it is clear that a number of forces combined to create a state with several “extraordinary laws” in its armoury. These would not only enable it to “accomplish from above what the society could not from below” but also to preserve the power of those elites (of which Ambedkar was not part) that inherited the state from colonialism and to assuage their fear of political violence. The consequences for real democracy have been dire as India looks down the barrel at the rise of religious majoritarianism. The question of how to stop the ascendancy of populist authoritarian forces may be the real emergency that faces us in India and beyond.

Priyamvada Gopal is reader in anglophone and related literature at the University of Cambridge. Her latest book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, will be published later this year.

Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point
By Gyan Prakash
Princeton University Press
456pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780691186726
Published 26 March 2019

The author

Gyan Prakash, Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University, was born in Bihar, India. After an undergraduate degree at the University of Delhi, he went on to a master’s in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, also in Delhi, and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Looking back, he says, “The period in Delhi was the most formative in my intellectual development. This was the 1970s, when the atmosphere at JNU was very politically charged. Student politics was predominantly leftist, and intense theoretical discussions and debates on Marxist texts and history defined student union election campaigns and student life in general. I developed a keen interest in history and theory from this experience; an interest that was enriched in the US.”

Although he specialises in modern Indian history, Prakash has found it mutually enriching to set it within a broader global context.

“A strictly Indian perspective would portray the Emergency as a uniquely Indian event,” he explains, “attributable entirely to Indira Gandhi’s personality and her hunger for power. When viewed against the background of global history, I saw that the political crisis in India during the late 1960s and the early 1970s was part of the global 1968, when political regimes across the world faced challenges from below, demanding fuller, Rousseauist representation. It led me to probe the crisis, rooted in the failure of the postcolonial project set in motion after [the Second World War]. Studying the Emergency in India in relation to the crises across the world helped illuminate the 1968 unrest as not exclusively European and American but as a broader phenomenon.”

Prakash believes that the Emergency remains relevant for us today, and that “a study of the unresolved crises that broke out [in India] four decades ago…provides a historical understanding of the current challenges to democracy”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: On high alert for a repeat crisis

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